Tim Ebner is former senior editor of Associations Now in Washington, DC.
Associations excel at launching new offerings, but they aren’t nearly as good at letting go when something outlives its usefulness. Discontinuing a product or service can be painful, but it pays off to manage your portfolio with a focus on meeting member needs and the organization’s goals.
When businesses follow best practices for managing the lifecycle of a product or service, they usually apply a set formula or analysis to determine what’s working and what’s not.
But for associations, knowing the difference between a product or service that’s growing, maturing, or declining can be difficult, especially if the organization has a specific mission, a wide portfolio, and multiple stakeholders, including staff, volunteers, and members.
Classifying and managing the product lifecycle can be much more art than science. But that doesn’t mean associations aren’t borrowing a few leading business practices from the for-profit sector.
In fact, many associations are starting to use—or already use—an evaluation technique known as sunsetting. This process empowers organizations and their stakeholders to embrace change and, when necessary, phase out products and services that no longer generate revenue or serve some other organizational purpose.
If there’s one thing that the National Strength and Conditioning Association does well, it’s developing and launching new products. But until recently, NSCA didn’t have the data to say whether they were performing.
“In our past, we were trying to do a lot of things to simply check off boxes,” says Scott Douglas, senior director of membership and business development. “Now, we are leading with a strong conviction toward doing fewer things better.”
It’s that philosophy that led Douglas to track data on how members used NSCA’s various offerings—and that exercise led the association to sunset three products and services, as well as an associate membership category. One example: its find-a-trainer database, a digital tool that allowed consumers to search for, find, and hire an NCSA member trainer.
“It sounds like a great member benefit. However, the actual functionality of it was poor,” Douglas says. “When we surveyed our members, we couldn’t find a single person who ever received a referral through the service.”
Now, we are leading with a strong conviction toward doing fewer things better.— Scott Douglas, National Strength and Conditioning Association
The process of sunsetting a product at NSCA typically takes about a year from start to finish, and it includes garnering the support of the board of directors, membership committee, and staff by providing evidence that a product or service has outlived its value. In some cases, it’s simply a matter of showing that it never worked well in the first place.
For the find-a-trainer database, Douglas pulled together member satisfaction data—from member surveys, one-on-one interviews, and data analytics—as support for sunsetting.
But pulling the plug wasn’t his decision. NSCA’s membership committee first had to approve the proposal, then staff had to present a viable timeline and possible replacement. That proposal required a separate finalizing vote from the board.
“We wanted to make sure that the staff and volunteer leaders were all on the same page before we sent notification that we were ceasing the service,” Douglas says.
Staff and volunteers agreed that the database was too difficult to navigate, required significant staff time to update, and did not align with members’ direct needs or interests. The product was discontinued this year after a 16-year run.
“What we’ve noticed is that over time, the way our members solve problems changed,” Douglas says. “In the past, the find-a-trainer database might have been a real solution, but today our members have social media pages to sell and promote themselves with clients.”
The same discipline can also be applied to bigger decisions. This year, NSCA voted to end its six-year-old associate membership category for sport coaches and fitness enthusiasts. In retrospect, its demise might have been predicted, Douglas says. The launch of associate membership “was a ready-aim-fire decision from our board. There wasn’t any market research or data to back up that this membership category would grow and thrive.”
Associate members paid $47 in annual dues, compared to $120 for professional members, and accounted for only 2.5 percent of membership. The category also had the highest turnover rate. Over time, NSCA found it difficult to support associates’ needs, so last spring the phase-out began.
Anticipating customers’ needs is essential when deciding whether to sunset a product, and associations might want to consider how business startups and entrepreneurs do it effectively.
The traditional SWOT analysis, evaluating strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, is a common technique used to benchmark performance. But according to Bob Reed, founder and principal of the consulting agency ReedScott, there’s a better way for associations to anticipate needs.
“What we’re telling associations to do is to go out to your members and ask questions an entrepreneur might ask,” he says. “Only then will you know if your product is a true benefit to them.”
Whereas an association might survey members to ask if they’re satisfied with an offering, Reed says, the first question an entrepreneur asks is: What problem or problems are you trying to solve?
A lean and mean product launch typically starts by thinking about the customer experience first, he says. Then, business startups apply what’s known as a Business Model Canvas —which considers factors like value proposition, customer relationships, partners, costs, and revenue streams—to determine whether a new product or service is viable to meet customers’ unmet needs. This same tool can be helpful in assessing whether a longstanding product or service is still working.
“It’s a very good way to evaluate a benefit,” Reed says. “You essentially answer three questions: Should we do it, can we do it, and finally, is it viable for us to do?”
Organizations of all types can work an individual product or service through the Business Model Canvas. “It’s not just for startups,” Reed says. “By using it, associations can establish a common language and way of talking about the value of their benefits. After all the answers on the canvas have been filled out, it’s possible to see what’s working and what’s not.”
Associations also need to think about accepting some degree of “gentle risk,” which can lead to innovation, Reed says. He suggests mapping a detailed plan that prioritizes risks worth taking versus those outside of your comfort zone.
“I like to call it an innovation roadmap, because you’re prioritizing and charting your course forward,” he says. “With a roadmap you can say, here are three benefits we are going to revitalize, here are the three we will retire, and here’s the one that’s really going to help push us forward.”
Of course, change does not come easy, and it’s pretty much inevitable that a decision to sunset a product or service will meet with some resistance.
Vicki Loise, CAE, CEO of the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening, is leading the organization’s first coordinated effort to evaluate its products and services. The most difficult part of sunsetting, she says, especially in an organization new to the process, can be communicating the change.
“It’s not like you just toss something in the garbage,” she says. “You have to look at who are the volunteers and members most involved, how your staff plays a role, and if this change will impact your overall community.”
Communicating a change is a staff-wide effort, says Claudia Zacharias, CAE, president and CEO of the Board of Certification/Accreditation. To sunset successfully, she says, it helps to have a good communications strategy.
Three months before her organization discontinued three professional certifications, Zacharias was busy developing messaging addressed to her staff, board members, partners, and holders of the certification.
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“What might be an appropriate message for your staff might not be the right message for public audiences, like the media,” she says. “We developed a comprehensive playbook, so that when we announced the news, people already understood the outcomes.”
Six months after the sunset, Zacharias still meets with stakeholders to deliver a consistent message that is scalable, shareable, and future-focused.
“There are many associations that sunset but overlook the importance of communicating their future plan,” she says. “Our goal was to test our message, gauge peoples’ reaction, and let them know there was a new way forward. After all, after every sunset, there is another sunrise.”
[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Running on Empty."]